When the executive board of the Association of American University Presses met in June to approve a theme for this year’s University Press Week, one theme spoke to everyone in the room: the importance of expertise, knowledge, and facts in both book publishing and to our broader culture. At the opening banquet of AAUP’s annual meeting in Austin, Tex., Dan Rather reminded us of the vital work of university presses: “Our country needs you and your work right now…. Do that with courage and gusto. You cannot waiver, hesitate, or cower…. What you do matters.”
Taking this charge to heart, the sixth annual University Press Week, November 6–11, will have as its theme #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters. In today’s political climate—in which “fake news” and “alternative facts” are believed and spread by so many people—valuing expertise and knowledge can feel like a radical stance.
A steady erosion of public trust in expertise and knowledge has become more visible in recent months. In May, the Pew Research Center released reports showing a decline in public trust in government and the news media; a Harvard Harris poll reported that the majority of Americans surveyed—political affiliation aside—believe that the mainstream media reports fake news.
University presses not only believe in the value of accurate, peer-reviewed knowledge but traffic in this work daily, publishing approximately 14,000 books each year read by people around the globe. The AAUP’s 142 members—based in the U.S. and abroad—publish the world’s leading thinkers, writers, and scholars in fields including history, journalism, politics, science, and literature. The work done by our authors, reviewers, and editors is critical to a free and open society.
In the United States today, the commemoration of historical events is proving to be a site of conflict. Violence broke out in Charlottesville, Va., this August around the contested issue of whether to retain statues of Confederate leaders. As individual citizens seek to understand what is at stake in these confrontations, historians and other scholars have been able to provide the documentation and the expert analysis that is helping to shape our public debate. One reliable resource is Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: The Geography of American Memory (West Virginia Univ., 2017), which presents photographs of significant sites from U.S. history, posing unsettling questions about the memory of traumatic episodes from our nation’s past.
University press books on American history and political thought, such as Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory and Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, expand readers’ understandings of contemporary events—and can inform their actions. The association compiled a book list about Confederate monuments and “lost cause” revisionism, and many member presses (Beacon, University of California, University of Virginia) published resource lists with the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum that enlarge our view of what’s at stake today.
And to show how much facts matter to the publishers who celebrate University Press Week, we can point to George Bomar’s forthcoming Weather in Texas: The Essential Handbook, from the University of Texas Press. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last month, the book was in final page proofs and headed for the printer. The author and copyediting team worked to quickly update the historic rainfall totals that appear in the book, and 28 records were added to Weather in Texas, including the greatest single-storm rainfall ever recorded: 51.85 in. in Cedar Bayou.
UP Week celebrates the serious publishing that university presses practice, which helps advance all aspects of our culture—from the way we read the news, treat disease and promote wellness, understand the events of the past, and try to make the world a better place. We feel strongly that knowledge, expertise, and facts matter and hope you will join us for UP Week celebrations online and in person this November.
Nicole Mitchell is director of the University of Washington Press and president of the Association of American University Presses. Peter Berkery is the executive director of the AAUP and has worked in legal and scholarly publishing.